(This article was originally published in the New York Jewish Week in 1998)
Long before the last Lubavitcher Rebbe passed away – and perhaps even before he succeeded his father-in-law as Rebbe – the Chabad movement which he headed had developed an arrangement that over the years has propelled it into what is now by far world Jewry’s largest organization. Nothing else in Jewish life approaches it in scope of activity or in the number of Jews who are being served.
What is also impressive is the quality of much of what Chabad does. It publishes each year a large number of books, magazines and other material and it manages to do all of this while maintaining a high intellectual standard, which is also true of what Chabad presents on the internet. It is evident that a great number of talented people are involved in creative ways in presenting the Chabad message.
Likely, much of this is news to most of us. When reading about Lubavitch, the Moshiach issue attracts the greatest share of attention, which is understandable since in the last decade of his life the Rebbe constantly trumpeted the theme, at times obsessively, and some of his more ardent followers took the message to be personal rather than a bit of abstract theology. This question has now been somewhat muted, but certainly not settled, by the ruling of a Chabad beth din. The focus can now turn to the more mundane, yet quite significant, matter of understanding the phenomenal growth of the movement.
There is a tendency to regard Chabad as a centralized operation located in Crown Heights, with all key decisions controlled at the top. This is a simplistic view, which helps to explain its attractiveness. In any case, Chabad is a classic example of decentralization, a reality that was masked during the long years of the Rebbe’s charismatic leadership. Now that he is gone and the movement is directed by administrators who have had a long run at internecine conflict, it is a stretch to maintain the notion of centralized authority.
Decentralization has been the key to Chabad’s growth. For decades, emissaries and their families have been sent to localities or positions where, as a rule, the expectation has been that they will serve until the end of their days. In an earlier period, the emissaries usually settled in large cities and the movement’s authority was vested in them. If another Lubavitcher wanted to come into the area and engage in Chabad activities, the Rebbe’s blessing was always sought but the ultimate decision of whether the person could come was made by the local emissary who was in charge.
This arrangement has produced an excess of nepotism within Lubavitch as relatives of emissaries frequently get the plum assignments. This has also meant that younger Lubavitchers, including some of the most gifted, have had to seek out new places and services, which goes a long way toward explaining why the movement is constantly expanding.
If this appears to be something like a franchise system, it is. Like franchises in the business world, there are common features, including the ubiquitous pictures of the Rebbe, the distinctive look of Lubavitcher men, standard services and events that are often pre-packaged and promotional material. As is also true of other franchise arrangements, the success of each separate enterprise depends to a considerable extent on the talent and drive of the people who are put in charge.
In this regard, Chabad is well served by a talent pool which feeds on the expectation developed at an early age among the best and the brightest of young Lubavitchers, that their mission in life and greatest accomplishment is to become emissaries. Chabad’s post high school educational process is less geared to the creation of scholars as it is to molding people who can go into the field. Through travel and contacts with fellow Lubavitchers in various settings, as well as work experience, young men and women mature quickly. By their mid-twenties, many are self-reliant and seem ready to establish, if not also conquer, new Chabad worlds.
As they seek opportunities that have not been spoken for, the young emissaries need a measure of good fortune to go along with their abilities. Although overall the results have been impressive, inevitably the record has been spotty. I remember coming upon the Chabad House on a major Midwest college campus where 7,000 Jews were students. The emissary, whose family I know, had been there nearly twenty years and he looked like a beaten and lonely person. Campus-based Chabad Houses, which were much in vogue in an earlier period, have not been a Lubavitch success story, I think because campuses have not been fertile ground for Jewish outreach.
The Mitzvah Mobiles or “Tanks,” which used to be familiar Lubavitch apparitions, seem no longer to be in style, a change that few would regard as a loss.
Inevitably, some emissaries do not succeed in the field, at times because they have had to settle for dead-end positions, serving in communities with few Jews who will pay attention to their activities or message and with little prospect for success. Shabbos, one such Lubavitch wife told me, is the worse day of the week because without the car and telephone, she and her family are alone and cut off from the world. The emissaries - especially the women – cherish the trips back home, usually to Crown Heights.
While Chabad has had a handful of rogue operators who use the movement’s imprimatur for self-enrichment, they have been few in number and they are greatly counterbalanced by the men and women who have sacrificed so much and who strive to do good. Because communal service is the highest ambition for Lubavitchers and status is given to those who choose this path, there are not too many Lubavitchers who have become affluent through business activity.
Fundraising is, of course, essential to the Chabad enterprise and, here too, decentralization is an important factor. Emissaries in the field learn immediately that they cannot count on 770 Eastern Parkway to pay their bills, so they hone their fundraising skills. In the process, they acquire greater confidence, as well as greater independence from central authority.
In the aggregate, what is raised to support all that the movement does must come to a staggering figure. My low estimate is a half-billion dollars, although there is no way to know the true figure. The emissaries’ fundraising accomplishments provide evidence of their skill, especially since nearly all of what is raised comes from people who are not Lubavitchers.
What we know about the consequences of advanced assimilation should suggest that the Lubavitch Chassidic outlook and ambiance is not one that Jews in communities across the continent are seeking. The beard and dress and much else should be turn-offs for Jews who are not observant, who live modern lives and certainly are not seeking an old-world look. Yet, a great number are attracted to Lubavitch, a phenomenon that requires an explanation.
What the emissaries offer is a presence, at times the only Jewish presence, in a community. They perform pastoral duties that traditionally have been the responsibility of pulpit rabbis, including visiting the sick, elderly and frail, helping the needy, arranging for life-cycle events and counseling. They provide basic religious services, such as Menorah lightings and Passover seders, in a friendly environment that emphasizes a soft sell.
Above all, there is a certain sweetness and kindness in the contacts between the emissaries (and their families) and the people who are their clientele. This is evident in the personal services that are given, as well as in the expanding network of Chabad synagogues and day schools.
The lesson is that even as more American Jews are moving away from Judaism’s core observances, many feel comfortable with Lubavitchers because of the kindness which they experience. In a sense, what Lubavitch offers even more than formal services and activities is the ability to fill an emotional need that overcomes whatever hesitancy non-observant Jews may have about dealing with these Chassidim. In a world where loneliness is pervasive and insecurity erodes happiness, caring and being available go a long way.
The flip side of non-observant Jews being comfortable with Chabad is that the relationship usually does not have a lasting religious impact on these Jews and their families. Assimilation continues to undermine Judaic commitment in too many homes that are involved with Chabad. With the possible exception of Sephardim and ex-Israelis who in some communities are the mainstays of Chabad, increasingly the movement is reaching out to American Jews of questionable religious status, Jews of the sort whom the Rebbe insisted should not be accorded Jewish identity when the Who Is a Jew? issue was debated in Israel. This is an inconsistency that has not been addressed.
There is, more generally, the compelling question of the efficacy of Chabad’s brand of feelgood Judaism, of an approach that does not challenge or disturb the status quo and thereby becomes an inadvertent handmaiden to ongoing assimilation. It is, of course, meritorious to make Jews feel good about themselves and it certainly is important to reach out in a tolerant way to marginal Jews. But what we now ask or expect of other Jewish activities must also be asked and expected of Lubavitch: In what ways are the Jews served by the movement being influence toward greater Judaic commitment?